Born in British India; his father was a captain in the Royal Engineers attached to the Indian Army, his mother the daughter of the Colonel of Engineers in Bombay (Mumbai). His father died when Peter was seven. He returned to England with his mother and younger brother and was sent immediately to board at Northcliffe House Prep. School in Sussex – evacuated to Cornwall during World War II – thence Christ's Hospital School, Sussex, and finally The Thames Nautical Training College, H.M.S.Worcester.
After service as a navigating officer in P & O liners to India and Australia, he gained a berth as mariner (rated Master Gunner in the ship's books) aboard the replica seventeenth century bark Mayflower II on her recreation of the Pilgrim Fathers' voyage from Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts under Commander Alan Villiers in 1957.
Stuart Upham, Mayflower II’s builder, with Peter Padfield and David Thorpe on the quarterdeck.
Villiers had chosen a varied, mostly amateur crew, and the voyage was hugely enjoyable, not least in leaving the modern world far away. Off watch, Peter enjoyed sketching the wonderful curves of the sails and intricate rigging. The Mayflower herself remains in Plymouth, Mass., as part of a remarkable evocation of the Pilgrim Fathers' experience (Plimoth Plantation), and the hospitable folk of that town have recently honoured surviving members of the original transatlantic crew with honorary Residency.
Peter Padfield aboard Mayflower II sketching sails and rigging
After a period in the United States Peter Padfield travelled to the British Solomon Islands in the Pacific, where he sailed local craft, took part in a crocodile hunting expedition and vainly panned for gold in the disused gold mines on Guadalcanal, still showing the scars and debris of the fierce wartime fighting everywhere around the coast and in the jungle. He described his time in the Pacific and the Mayflower voyage in his first book The Sea is a Magic Carpet (Peter Davies, 1959).
Returning to England, he worked in nautical journalism, then manufacturing industry, writing in his spare time, until the international success of The Titanic and the Californian (Hodder & Stoughton 1965) encouraged him to become independent. This was the first book to defend the reputation of the late Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, who was censured at the British Titanic Inquiry for not going to the rescue of those who went down with the liner. The controversy continues to this day, but it is notable that the two 'Titanic' authors with professional navigational experience at sea before the age of satellite navigation, Peter Padfield and the late, greatly missed Leslie Harrison, are unequivocal in their condemnation of the censure handed down to Captain Lord at the British Inquiry into the loss of the Titanic, and adamant that the Californian could not possibly have been the ship whose lights were seen briefly from the Titanic as she sank. This has been virtually confirmed by the recent discovery of the wreck of the Titanic some twenty miles from the log position of the Californian that night - meaning that each ship would have been well below the horizon from the other. Peter Padfield is convinced that Captain Lord was deliberately made the scapegoat for the loss of life from the Titanic in order to divert attention from the real causes of the disaster at a time when British passenger shipping faced intense international transatlantic competition. Blame was thus transferred from the Titanic's master and particularly from the British Board of Trade, whose regulations allowed gigantic passenger liners to go to sea with lifeboat accommodation for only a fraction of the people aboard.
The struggle to clear the name of the captain of the Californian has been taken forward by Rob Kamps and others, in particular Senan Maloney, whose meticulous investigation of the facts and theories that now surround the liner’s sinking, published as A Ship Accused: The Case of the S.S.Californian Re-Examined, brings the argument up to date. Anyone who can read this book conscientiously and remain a critic of Captain Lord merits condolence.
The theme of Peter Padfield's next book, An Agony of Collisions (Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), was the inadequacy of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea, particularly in the light of the near universal use of radar. It had an impact on the discussion at the time, but its full recommendations were not adopted, and the collision regulations remain seriously deficient, particularly, he believes, in retaining the concept of a 'stand on' vessel which holds her course and speed - leading to dangerous uncertainty when the 'give way' vessel either fails to take avoiding action or delays her action too long.
The case for changing the rules has been taken forward by Captain David Thomas in his book, The Fatal Flaw. Defining the present Regulations which originated in the 19th century as ‘ambiguous, contradictory, vague, equivocal…[producing] uncertainty and anxiety on the part of the competent mariner’ he has produced and computer-tested a new set of rules designed for the radar age. Alas, they have failed to move members of the Sub-Committee on the Safety of Navigation at the International Maritime Organisation. The Fatal Flaw is obtainable for £10.00 plus £2.00 postage from Phaiacia Publishers, Ty Glyn, 3 Llandeila Rd., Llandybie, Carmarthenshire SA18 3JA. It is recommended to all with an interest in navigation.
After maritime collisions Peter Padfield turned to naval history with biographies of notable gunnery innovators, Admiral Sir Percy Scott (Aim Straight, Hodder & Stoughton, 1968) and Admiral Sir Philip Broke (Broke and the Shannon, Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), followed by a history of naval gunnery and its effect on tactics (Guns at Sea, Hugh Evelyn, 1972), a history of the iron and steel battleship (The Battleship Era, Hart-Davis, 1973, re-issued as Battleship, Birlinn, 2000); and a study of the great naval battles of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 'The Glorious First of June', 1794, to 'Trafalgar', 1805 (Nelson's War, Hart-Davis, 1975, re-issued in Wordsworth Editions, 2000).
A book he wrote on the naval armaments race before the first world war, The Great Naval Race: Anglo-German Naval Rivalry, 1900-1914 (Hart-Davis,1976, re-issued Birlinn, 2005) fired an interest in German history which led him to write three biographies of Nazi leaders: first Hitler's successor, Dönitz: the Last Führer (Gollancz, 1984); then Himmler: Reichsführer-SS (Macmillan, 1990) and Hess: Flight for the Führer (Weidenfeld, 1991), expanded with new information as Hess: the Führer's Disciple (Macmillan Papermac, 1993). All three were subsequently brought out in paperback by Cassell (2001) and have been translated into many European languages.
Other books by Peter Padfield include Rule Britannia: the Victorian and Edwardian Navy (Routledge, 1981, re-issued Pimlico, 2002); Beneath the Houseflag of the P & O (Hutchinson, 1981), a social history of the P & O line in its high days as the link between Great Britain and her Indian and eastern empire; a highly illustrated Armada: a Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Gollancz, 1988); and War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Conflict, 1939-1945 (John Murray, 1995, Pimlico paperback, 1997), a history of the submarine operations of all major powers in World War II.
He has recently completed a study of the rise of western power and influence, describing how trading and naval supremacy has led to the liberal values associated with the West today - as opposed to the values which might have been expected to predominate had any of the great land powers, Imperial Spain, Napoleonic France, Imperial and Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia overcome the leading maritime power of their day. This expands a thesis he introduced in earlier volumes, Tide of Empires: Decisive Naval Campaigns in the Rise of the West, vol.i, 1481-1654; vol.ii, 1654-1763 (Routledge, 1979, 1981).
The first volume of this new trilogy, Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1588-1782 (John Murray, 1999, Pimlico paperback, 2000) described the Dutch Republic rising to trading and financial dominance in the seventeenth century, and Great Britain taking over from her as supreme maritime/financial power in the eighteenth century. James R.Holmes, Professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, listed this volume among his ‘Top Ten Books About the Sea’.
The second volume of the trilogy, Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1788-1851 ( John Murray, 2003) described the final, epic struggle between Great Britain and her great territorial rival, France, at the end of the eighteenth century and Britain's emergence as supreme world power in the early nineteenth century. This volume was awarded the Mountbatten Maritime Prize 2003.
In the final volume of the trilogy, Maritime Dominion and the Triumph of the Free World: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World, 1852-2001 (John Murray, 2009), Great Britain, challenged by Germany and weakened in the terrible wars of the twentieth century, surrenders the baton of maritime and world power to the United States of America.
The conclusion of this volume is starkly pessimistic: for the global trading system created by the supreme maritime powers demands continual growth, hence continual exploitation of the earth's resources, already seriously depleted and reaching exhaustion in a number of areas, particularly wilderness, rainforest , water table and strategic minerals. The problem is aggravated by the inexorable rise in world population. It seems that only war, famine or pestilence on the grand scale can restore the balance.
Reviewing this final volume for The Sunday Times, Saul David wrote that 'this lucid, passionately argued and beautifully written history ranks among the finest of modern times', and in the BBC History Magazine, Ashley Jackson described it reaching 'heights of brilliance, combining thrilling narrative with razor-sharp insights into underlying historical trends'. (Fuller extracts from these reviews are shown under Maritime Dominion in the 'Books' column)
For his most recent work Peter Padfield returned to Rudolf Hess, investigating the mystery of his wartime flight to Scotland in May 1941 and the associated puzzle of why, so long after the event, so many files on the affair have been ‘weeded’, and others withheld from public view. This is certain since an MI5 file released recently reveals that Hess brought documents with him, yet these have not been released to The National Archives and all reference to them – apart from that in the MI5 file – have been expunged from open files. Peter Padfield’s book, Hess, Hitler & Churchill: The Real Turning Point of the Second World War – A Secret History (Icon 2013) challenges the official British and German accounts of Hess’s flight, emphasises Churchill’s moral imperative for continuing the war against Nazi Germany after the fall of France when all seemed lost and rational British statesmen would have agreed to the peace deal Hess undoubtedly brought with him; and explores possible reasons for the continuing cover-up.
Among Peter Padfield's other recent works are a chapter in The Trafalgar Companion edited by Alexander Stilwell (Osprey, 2005), analysing the political and social differences between Britain and Napoleonic France; an Introduction to Voices From the War at Sea edited by John Winton (Vintage, 2007), and a chapter on the submarine as commerce raider for The Naval Review Centenary volume, Dreadnought to Daring, edited by Captain Peter Hore (Seaforth Publishing 2012).
He has also written three naval adventures, The Lion’s Claw, The Unquiet Gods, Gold Chains of Empire (Hutchinson 1978-82) and a family saga set at the time of the First World War, Salt and Steel (Century 1985) as well as numerous magazine articles.
Family and interests
With his wife, Jane, in Switzerland, April 2002
Peter Padfield married in 1960, shortly after leaving the sea, and soon moved with his wife, Jane, to East Anglia, settling eventually in Suffolk, where they raised two daughters and a son. Finding that his early writing success was not easily repeatable he supplemented his income by forming a company to sell sketches of East Anglian scenes.
With the growth of his reputation as a naval historian in this country and abroad he was able to buy a gaff-rigged 1900 Norfolk shrimper replica which he sailed with his children on the river Deben until all left home. His son, Guy, settled in Switzerland and began creating the butterfly web-site for which he is now known internationally; the girls found their vocations in respectively art photography and play writing.
Taking holidays in Switzerland twice a year, Peter and Jane enjoyed cross-country skiing in winter, while never mastering the steep gradients, and in summer they marvelled at the profusion of wild flowers and butterflies which have suffered such drastic decline in England. Age has forced retirement from winter sport; summer walking in the mountains remains a joy. Peter Padfield’s other interests include tennis, sea swimming and sketching and painting in watercolours.
The author with his wife, Jane, son Guy and his son's dog, Asha, in Switzerland, 2003
He finds more questions than answers in life the older he gets; but on two matters his convictions remain firm:
Intensive farming for meat and milk – like scientific experimentation on animals – is a crime against other species, an abomination bred of human insensitivity and hauteur which by itself gives the lie to their claims to being higher than their fellow creatures. Peter and Jane and their family are in consequence vegetarians. Guy long ago took the ultimate step of becoming vegan, refusing animal products of any description – a far harder course than simple vegetarianism, although not easy or without social consequences.
Peter Padfield’s second firm conviction is that in joining the European Union Britain’s political class committed a crime against British history and British liberties and the British people, compacting the crime by lying and continuing to lie to those who elected them. To use a Second World War word derived from a Norwegian Nazi-collaborator, they are Quislings all, wielding power on behalf of a foreign empire in Brussels without ever seeking genuine consent. They have been aided by the University educated ‘progressive’ intelligentsia in the Foreign Office, BBC and other media. The British people themselves have been party to this great betrayal, revealing their historic lack of interest in ideas on matters not practical or present.
The historic arguments against Britain joining the European Union will be found in Peter Padfield’s Maritime Supremacy trilogy, particularly at the end of Maritime Dominion. Before joining the EU Britain’s role had been to preserve individual liberties against the top-down theories of continental despots. British freedoms were famously described by Edmund Burke as ‘an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity.’ Some hope now!POSTSCRIPT: Oh, frabjous day! 23 June 2016 - BREXIT ! - a date that will resonate alongside November 1688 as a defining moment in British history!